Connor McDavid blew everyone away when he showcased his speed on opening night. And the scary part? He might not even be at his top speed.
On the second of his three goals in the season opener, Edmonton Oilers’ superstar Connor McDavid was clocked at a peak speed of 40.9 kilometers per hour, which is just a shade over 25.5 miles per hour for those of you who still deal in such modes of measurement. And remember, that’s not flat-out speed because he was carrying the puck. For that, please refer to the Oilers’ 2017 skills competition when, from a standing start, McDavid did one lap of the ice in 13.382 seconds.
The speed McDavid displayed on that goal had a lot of people wondering whether or not McDavid actually got faster over the summer. Well, the answer to that is yes. According to Joe Quinn, McDavid’s skating and skills coach who has been working with him since McDavid was 11, the fastest man in hockey actually did get faster over the summer. And, remarkably, there’s room for him to put even more zip in his stride. Quinn works with a number of NHL players and puts them through a circuit of drills that is designed to overload their motor skills and McDavid was faster last summer than any other.
“His speed was a little quicker and some of our pro guys were commenting that he was just really ripping through it,” Quinn said. “I mean, you see guys every year at the skills competition where they have speed, but I don’t think anyone is going to be able to handle the puck and make plays at the speed he can. Yeah, I think he can add more speed. How much more? Can he get to 42 or 43 kilometers an hour (26.3 to 26.9 miles per hour)? I think he can. He’s still young, he’s only 20 years old and he’s going to get better. He still has a lot of room to get better.”
Quinn should know. He has watched McDavid improve since the days he worked with him as a sixth-grader at a sports school in Toronto. And Quinn maintains that McDavid is so quick that since those days, he has been working on his skills in a system that emphasizes overloading the player’s motor skills with too many tasks in too confined a space. It can be a frustrating, painstaking process, but once the mind and body master the skills at a high pace, the results can be astounding.
When Quinn works with players, he tries to sync together the hands, feet and head. Instead of working exclusively on puckhandling or edges, he’ll throw five different tasks at a player to perform simultaneously. Quinn notices that with a lot of players with whom he works, NHLers included, the ones who have been training in isolated environments have trouble mastering the skill set. “With a lot of guys, if the feet are doing something, the hands aren’t,” Quinn said. “If the hands are trying to beat the opponent, the feet are in the glide position. They lose their speed and have to recreate energy. Connor doesn’t have to do that because with the overloading he’s had and his nervous system, he’s a major, major multi-tasker.”
So that’s the kind of work McDavid puts in to get the results we’re seeing today. What we’re seeing is a plethora of speed and a lot of offense. The two often don’t go hand-in-hand for a lot of players. After all, how many times have you reveled at a player’s ability to get around the ice, then watched him create chance after chance but fail to do anything with them? And that’s where players such as McDavid separate themselves from others. First, it’s their ability to do things at high speed. Second, it’s their ability to create speed in situations where other players slow down. You might marvel at McDavid’s ability to gain speed while doing crossovers, but that didn’t happen by accident. Quinn said the average NHL player does a crossover every 12 to 14 strides, while the top players in the league do them every three to four. There are times when McDavid does it with every other stride. “I’ve seen times where he’ll run his route back to his zone and he’ll explode up the ice and he’ll go 120 feet of zero strides, 100 percent crossovers,” Quinn said. “It’s one thing to have speed, it’s easy to see it, but he does things at full speed that are hard to defend against.”
The other facet to McDavid’s game is that he has incredible deception skills, owing largely to his quick mind and his ability to move using just his upper body. Many players, when they change direction, lose efficiency and have to create new energy to start building up that speed again. Quinn said instead of using his feet to turn, McDavid often uses his upper body, which allows his feet to keep moving. Combine that with his ability to think three steps ahead and it makes for a potential nightmare scenario for defensemen.
“The defender has to match his crossover,” Quinn said. “If he’s cutting to the right, you’re cutting with him and you have to maintain that speed and you’ve also got to maintain the false information he’s giving the defender. That defender has to counter back and that’s where the problem is. They can’t counter back because they’re not sure which way he’s going to go and if they do bite, the puck goes one way and his body goes the other. So now you’ve got the arm out and you’re trying to reach out and hang on to him. You’ll see a lot of defensemen get into a frozen mode where, ‘I’m going to stay here and I don’t know which way he’s going to go, left or right.’ And they’re in a worse position.”
The challenge for Quinn in the off-season is to keep pace with McDavid and to continue to challenge him. Quinn said McDavid took more time off this summer than he ever has and when he came back to work on his on-ice skills, even he was a little frustrated because things weren’t coming as easy as usual. But because he’s been doing it for nine years, it wasn’t long before McDavid found his stride and required more of a challenge.
“With Connor, we have to take the space away from him,” Quinn said. “So when we start with him, let’s say we have eight to 12 feet between units. Now he’s down to three or four. We have to keep taking that away and having him have more speed, gaining more speed, take that space away, incorporate a give-and-go, put a bit of pressure on him. Some guys might not do that because they’re going to struggle just with the speed and the space taken away. But we’ll have him have to move pucks, to challenge him at different levels.”